February 10, 2018

NOTE TO READERS: Kayhan London was the first media organization to report the arrest in Iran of the seven conservationists. 

Abbas Jaffari Dowlatabadi, the Tehran Prosecutor, confirmed on February 10 that seven conservationists had been arrested on charges of espionage.

Hooman Jokar (r), Morad Tahbaz (m), Kavus Seyyed Emami

“These individuals’ true mission was to collect sensitive strategic information about the country while working ostensibly as wildlife conservationists and environmentalists,” Dowlatabadi said. He added: “They have all been arrested following a successful intelligence operation.” Dowlatabadi did not, however, disclose the names of the persons in custody.

Kayhan London has learned that the Iranian authorities have arrested seven members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a non-profit organization. One of those jailed is Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman. This is the first time that the authorities have imprisoned environmental activists.

Kavus Seyyed Emami; a sociologist and a faculty member at Imam Sadeq University; Hooman Jokar; the treasurer and director of the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP); Nilofar Bayani; the CAPA project manager and former adviser to the UN Environment Program; and two other members of the PWHF have also been arrested in the past two months.

The jailed environmentalists have not been allowed to contact their families or seek legal representation, sources have told Kayhan London. The authorities have reportedly searched their homes and those of their families and friends, seizing computers and other electronic equipment.

The Judiciary has yet to announce the exact charges against the seven detainees. But the fact that PWHF was registered in the U.S. in 2010 might have something to do with the arrest.

The PWHF has attracted media attention in the past. In 2014, Sam Khosravifard, an environmentalist based in Canada, alleged that Mr. Tahbaz was secretly working with Masoumeh Ebtekar, the head of Iran’s Department of Environment (DOE) at the time, to obtain hunting permits for a number of tour operators.

In 2015, the hardline Tehran-based daily Kayhan described the PWHF as an Iranian-American organization licensed to organize hunting tours for Larestan, in Fars Province, where there are wild mountain sheep, busards, and even cheetahs.

Tasnim News Agency [an agency with close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)] also reported in 2016 that Mr. Tahbaz was an unofficial adviser to Mrs. Ebtekar at the time and that he was trying to secure hunting licenses for tour operators.

In its February 5 online issue, the Tabnak news reported that the directors of the Campaign to Protect Cheetah had been arrested. The report said: “The directors of CACP had been arrested.” But Hooman Jokar has always maintained that the campaign to protect cheetahs was a private entity founded by Hedieh Tehrani, an Iranian actress, and Amirhossein Khaleqi, a wildlife conservationist. According to Jokar, the CACP provided only moral support to the campaign. Since 2014, the Campaign to Protect Cheetah has raised $240,000 in order to build a cheetah sanctuary inside Turan National Park, in northern Semnan Province, and remove all illegal traps from the protected wildlife refuge.

The PWHF has been accused of receiving financial aid from the Iranian government, particularly when Mrs. Ebtekar was the head of the DOE. It’s even suggested that this was the reason behind President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to move Mrs. Ebtekar to a different job in his government.

Mr. Tahbaz had reportedly maintained hia influence in the cheetah conservation campaign even after the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) had ended its financial support for the project. The UNPD criticized the Iranian government for its lack of commitment to the project.

The UNDP protects extinct mammals including black bear, cheetah, panther, and wild sheep.

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